Monday, April 28, 2014


The celebration of Crash's birthday had Math Man and I comparing notes all day on what we'd been doing at that time 20 years previously. Walking, laboring, eating a chili dog (Math Man, not me).  When did we decide on a name for the Crash Kid? When did I get to hold Crash?  I could relate to the conversation Keith Maczkiewicz SJ recounts in his piece at the Jesuit Post about deciding upon the time of resurrection.

And this Easter - the 56th anniversary of my baptism, the 27th anniversary of Tom's funeral - when did I first catch the scent of resurrection, push aside  the veil to peer out of the Lenten tomb?   I intoned the incipit to the Gloria, acapella in the dark church, my voice clinging to the last threads of the Vigil's darkness, holding the last note until it was caught into a shimmering cascade of light and music as piano, organ, flute, trumpet, strings, choir and assembly took up the major doxology.  Was that this Easter's "moment when"?

Or was it when I walked past the 2nd grader at Mass this weekend, his face buried in his hands after receiving the Eucharist for the first time? And for some reason, it all made me think of John Updike's poem
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
Perhaps each year we must painfully let the bones of this Body of Christ reknit, the amino acids fall back into their places, the cellular machinery creak and groan its way back to life.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Case for Camels

Me: Good night, my little 19 year old! Love you tons, Mom and Dad... 
Sorry...wrong window open.
The Boy: #old #texting
Me: #young #carinsurance
The Boy: #myBad #useCamelTextPlease
Me: #NewVocab #BlogPost
The Boy: #dontCapatalizeTheFirstWord #itsComputerScience
Me: #spelling #inMyDay computers only understood one case UPPER

On the night before my birthday, for as long as I can remember, my mother would wish me "Goodnight my little n year old!" and greet me the next morning with, "Good morning, my big n+1 year old."  Long after my age no longer correlated linearly with my height, my mother would make the traditional wish.  She called one year from London (in the days when making that phone call was neither inexpensive nor trivial) to do it.

Tonight I texted Crash the traditional pre-birthday wish.  Except that I didn't.  I accidentally sent the  text to The Boy.  There was no calling it back, and I steeled myself for the snark was sure to follow.

There was snark on both sides, but I also learned about CamelCase, which I use when I code, but didn't have a name for.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Column: Breathe Easter, and exult!

I love the gentleness of the Whitacre piece, and even his initial reluctance to write it.

This column appeared at on 21 April 2014.

…then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Genesis 2:7

It began with ashes and dust, a charcoal rendering of the mystery of redemption on my forehead. “Remember that you are dust….” With a deep breath taken at the meeting point of darkness and light it ends, “Exult, let them exult….”

“Breathe Easter now … you vigil-keepers with low flames decreased,” says Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., in his poem, “Easter Communion,” to those who have been pursued by the cold breezes of Lent. After this winter, after this Lent, I want nothing more than to breathe Easter. To let God’s breath fill my soul, to let resurrection billow in my heart.

St. John of the Cross, in his commentary on his “Spiritual Canticle,” suggests that this is how we are made and remade in this life — by God breathing in our souls, by our souls breathing in God. An act of creation I find no less miraculous than that wrought when God’s breath first moved over the waters.

Gregory of Nazianzus says our souls are a mingling of heaven and earth, the breath of God with the dust of the earth. They are lights “entombed in a cave … unquenchable.” Light that will not dim in the sharing, we who kept vigil through Lent’s dimness are promised.

In the end it is Augustine who takes my breath away. God’s breath is what first bound body to soul, he says. Our bodies may have been formed from the dust of the earth, but our souls were held within God, waiting. But even as our souls were breathed forth, bringing us into being, they are never separated from God, for God is not bound by place. We were created not to be separated from God, but joined to his very breath. In God we live, and move, and have our being.

We were once but dust and ashes, what we are now lives by God’s breath, by the Word that died and rose again. Breathe Easter, and exult.

To read from Scripture: Let everything that has breath give praise to the Lord. Psalm 150.

To pray:
Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy.
Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy.
Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I may love only what is holy.
Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, that I may defend all that is holy.
Guard me, O Holy Spirit, that I myself may always be holy.

— St. Augustine of Hippo

To listen:

Eric Whitacre’s Alleluia. This is a very gentle setting of the Alleluia, a choral piece that feels to me like a single breath, of God in us, of us in God.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Church of Mercy

In a celebration with a congregation a short homily may follow the reading to explain its meaning, as circumstances suggest. [General Instructions for the Liturgy of the Hours, 47]

We celebrate Morning Prayer six days a week with the Augustinian community that staffs our parish, but as Morning Prayer follows daily Mass, the circumstances do not conduce to a homily.  On Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, there are, of course, no morning Masses so we more often than not have a short homily. This year I was privileged to "take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners" and break open the Word at Morning Prayer on Good Friday and Holy Thursday.

On Good Friday I reflected on the connections between the stories of the Trappist monks of Tibhirine in Algeria and of Frans van der Lugt, the Jesuit priest who was killed in Syria recently and Psalm 51, the Miserere.

I closed by inviting us to shift our focus in the Passion later that day, to look upon Christ’s walk to Calvary and his death on the cross, not as some divine transaction that bought us out of our sins, but as a psalm of mercy, a way of proceeding from death to life.  To see Christ singing mercy, literally and figuratively, all that way, even unto the cross, forgiving the unforgivable.  To take a page from Augustine (and from the previous night's homily), May we see who we are, may we become what we see. 

For more on mercy as a way of being:

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Easter communion

God shall o'er-brim the measures you have spent
With oil of gladness, for sackcloth and frieze
And the ever-fretting shirt of punishment
Give myrrhy-threaded golden folds of ease.
Your scarce-sheathed bones are weary of being bent:
Lo, God shall strengthen all the feeble knees.

from Easter Communion by Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ

I woke up this morning miserably ill (some awful throat virus has been plaguing the choir all week, felling cantors, choir member and directors alike), but still over brimming with joy with the gathering in communion of parish and family. The boys are making dinner, I'm alternately napping and reading on the sofa with a view of the backyard in nearly full flower.

The photo is of the dome at Immaculata University taken at noon, between my two talks last weekend.  I loved the way it goes up and up until the colors dissolve into the white light that gathers all their wavelengths together.

Christ is risen, alleluia!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

With crown of piercing thorn

“...human kind cannot bear very much reality.” TS Eliot

Several years ago, The Boy was in Rome on Good Friday — traveling with a group of Latin students from school. It wasn’t on their itinerary, but they returned to the Coliseum that night to see the Via Dolorosa, and to see Pope Benedict. He didn’t take a lot of photos, or shoot long videos, but instead told me that he thought I would want him to be there, to watch, not put a lens between him and the action. A theater guy all the way, that one. And yes, he was exactly right about what I would have wanted.

I wrote my column last week for CatholicPhilly about watching for the people around us walking the Via Dolorosa, those for whom Calvary is not an image, not something they settle themselves comfortably back into their pews to listen to, but an inescapable reality.

It's making me wonder if we should stand to listen to that proclamation of the Passion on Sunday, and on Friday, on feet that ache, with backs that long for support, that we should face at least that much reality. We should push away the lens we bring, and let ourselves be swept into this moment.

But even the willingness to bear what reality we can, to try to catch the moments where time is pierced through and we see Christ fallen in the dust and pinned to a tree, is a lens. Are we willing to face the realities of our own tears, our own troubles?

On Monday, I was pulling open a window in my hot and stuffy classroom, to let in the spring breezes (and alas, the odd wasp). The first one stuck, so I tugged hard on the second. The laws of physics are such that the forces all have to add up. The force not needed to open the window thus went into my tumbling down the lecture hall stairs until I hit the bottom. Hard with my head.

My first thought was how little padding there was between the carpet and the poured cement floor. My second was how quiet my classroom was. I have never heard it so silent, not even during a test. I picked myself up (with a little help from my students, the athletes checking for concussion symptoms) and perched on a lab stool for the rest of lecture, which I perforce finished. Students joked with me that I was benched from contact sports for the next couple of weeks, “No rugby for you, Dr. Francl!”

For the next two days my head ached, my shoulder reminded me it was stiff each time I reached up. Choir rehearsal for the Triduum, when deep breaths hurt my bruised ribs, felt like a a Lamaze class for potential messiahs. O vos omnes, qui transitit per viam, attendete...quick breath...videte...Breathe! and now push through...

By Holy Thursday I was feeling significantly less battered, marching through my to-do-list so I could keep Good Friday utterly clear for preaching and prayer, for sacred reading and liturgy, for a long contemplative walk. I printed something out on the printer down the hall, scooped it up and as I strode back to my office, began to proof read it. Then I tripped over the handy stop that keeps my door open, and went flying. Please, don’t let me hit my head again, I prayed. The cup did not pass me by, and I hit the metal leg of the table in my office with a clang that brought my retired geology colleague dashing in. Head wounds bleed. Our department financial wizard and guardian of the budget stuck her head in the door and said firmly, “I know you don’t want the fuss, but I’m calling public safety.” The campus EMT came, the campus police came to get a report, the safety officer...

Some hours later I’m cleaned up, dressed in my best black dress for Holy Thursday and sporting a neat set of stitches across my brow, a touch of the “crown of thorns.” I ache in every muscle. Each subsequent liturgy has required a bit more energy than I have. Yet like Jesus, who each time he falls gets to his feet, I am walking these Triduum days, not settled comfortably into liturgies I know well, with my lens held up, but battered and bent and blown.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

To live in death and life, light and darkness

“(Be)comings all involve goings. I keep musing about how Christ holds all these things in tension: birth/death; emptiness/fullness; light and darkness; dance and stillness….and perhaps that’s what it means to be fully human, to live in death and life, light and darkness?"

Easter week funerals were the topic of post-morning prayer chatter yesterday. A parishioner died this weekend, his funeral will hold until Easter Monday; and an Augustinian friar that I know died on Friday, to be buried Wednesday of Easter week. Someone wondered how it was to be on hold through these days. So I said, difficult and's to live in the doorway between light and darkness, between life and death - we are always stretched out between heaven and earth, we just don't always notice how it feels.

Tom died 27 years ago today, on what was Holy Thursday that year. We held his wake on Easter afternoon, the funeral was on Easter Monday morning...

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


At times when I write, I'm acutely conscious that it is a way of holding open a door for God to enter the world, a way in which the Word takes flesh and walks among us, pitches His tent within us.  I think of Annie Dillard, wondering how we dare to come to prayer at all, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?”  I have perhaps a faint idea of what we are invoking.  Such awareness generally does nothing for my writer's block.

Today I'm writing at DotMagis about the Word made flesh, word,s and Pope Francis' notion of misericordiando — mercy-ing.
"I’m both consoled and challenged by the pope’s notion that mercy is not just an object, but an action. Mercy-ing is a way of proceeding, a way of being in the world. Like Hopkins’s “just man who justices,” who, “acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—Christ,” mercy-ing calls us not just to be merciful, but to be mercy..." 
Read the rest at DotMagis.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Column: Looking for Calvary

The police shot the robber (inside the bank), but he survived.  When Crash saw the man the guards had shot being carried from the bank and put into the ambulance, he turned to me and said, "Did he not go like a bunny?"  Every time we crossed a Roman street I would entreat him to "go like a bunny" so we didn't get flattened by a Roman driver. I suspect I made a noncommittal noise, not wanting to go into detail at that moment about what had happened.

The crowd dispersed and we were on our way, though for the life of me I don't recall where we went from there.  The Vatican museum?

What do we see?

This column appeared at Catholic Philly on 10 April 2014.

You see many things but do not observe; ears open, but do not hear. Isaiah 42:20

Many years ago, when Crash was four and The Boy only two, we traveled to Rome for a couple of weeks, so that my husband could present a paper at a conference there. While Victor worked, the two boys and I enjoyed the sights of Rome.

The shortest route to the subway stop ran through the local indoor market, a cool and colorful oasis in the soggy heat of a Roman summer. One afternoon we wove our way through the crowded Friday market and popped out onto the street to find ourselves at the edge of a crowd, all pushing and craning for a look at the street. We couldn’t turn back and couldn’t move forward. Sirens were sounding, and men were barking orders. In the confusion I turned to the man next to me and asked in halting Italian what was happening. “There’s been a bank robbery,” he said, “with guns.” I clung tightly to the boys’ hands and prayed.

I am cantoring Palm Sunday and in preparation to sing the Psalm, I spent some time earlier in the week meditating on the readings, lingering with Matthew’s version of the Passion. I began to wonder what it might have been like, had I been in Jerusalem the morning that Jesus was crucified?

Would it have been like that Friday in Rome? All noise and confusion, with very little information to be had, and no time to think before you are confronted by a difficult and frightening reality. Would I have grasped what was happening at all, understood that in the dust of Jerusalem street, lay Jesus, the Son of God, dying for my sins?

I wonder, too, how often I miss seeing Christ walking that road to the crucifixion here and now, seeing Christ, as poet Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ put it, playing in ten thousand places. Have I learned from listening to the Passion narrative how to spot those bearing crosses, those caught up in living out the Paschal mystery through their own suffering, or do I stand there in the crowd, confused and a bit too complacent?

I watch an elderly man come into the dim church, himself a bit unsteady on his feet, holding tight to his frail wife, bearing as much of her weight as he can. I see Simon of Cyrene steadying Jesus, pulling the weight of the cross onto his own shoulders.

I see a photo of a priest standing alone before a crowd, a cross in his hands, a soldier pointing a gun behind him. I hear Jesus in St. John’s Passion, “I came to testify to the truth.”

I read of parents in the Sudan, boiling poisonous roots for their children to eat. I see the soldiers offering gall to Jesus to drink.

I will hear the Passion read twice this week, but had I eyes, I could read the Passion daily. For Christ plays in a thousand places, looking up at me from the dust where he has fallen, asking, “Do you see me? Can you hear me? Will you pick up my cross and walk with me?”

To read:
Read slowly and meditatively Mark’s account of the Passion (we will hear Matthew’s on Sunday and John’s on Friday): Mark 15:1-41

To pray:

Anima Christi
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O Good Jesus, hear me.
Within your wounds hide me.
Permit me not to be separated from you.
From the wicked foe, defend me.
At the hour of my death, call me and bid me come to you
That with your saints I may praise you
For ever and ever.

To listen:
The text sung here, which comes from the book of Lamentations (1:12 ), is from a response traditionally used during Holy Week:

O vos ómnes qui transítis per víam, atténdite et vidéte: Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus. Atténdite, univérsi pópuli, et vidéte dolórem méum. Si est dólor símilis sícut dólor méus.

O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see: if there be any sorrow like my sorrow. Pay attention, all people, and look at my sorrow: if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Give Me a Word: Radical Hospitality

As we move toward Holy Week and Easter, I find myself listening harder for the voices that call from unexpected places, wondering how I can be Christ in these situations, so far away from me, not only in physical distance, but in experience.  I'm struck with remorse that mothers must scavenge food for their children in bombed out streets in Syria, that parents in the Sudan are boiling inedible roots for their children to eat.  Would I wash their feet?  Greet them with joy?  Bring them a meal?

We argue about the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday - does the mandatum stretch to more than twelve?  to the non-ordained? to women?  Then I look at these photographs and know whose feet Jesus would be washing, whose feet he command us to wash...

This column appeared at on 3April 2014.

Amma Sarah said, “It is good to give alms. If a person does it to please people at first, he will come from pleasing people to living in awe of God.” — from the
Apothegmata Patrum, the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers

A flustered-looking student I did not know knocked on my doorframe last week. I looked up from my desk and asked if I could help her, thinking she was lost in the maze-like science building. “Do you have a charger for a phone?” Amazingly I had the charger she needed, and perhaps equally amazingly, I handed it over to her, without thinking to ask her name or when she might be back.

When she returned the cables an hour later, overflowing with thanks, it struck me that my loan was the modern day equivalent of providing a bucket for travelers to pull up water from a cistern in the desert; we depend on being able to fill our phones up with electrons, we feel so lost without them. (Modern oases do offer both water and electrons to desert travelers!) I handed over my bucket without a thought to whether I might later need it to power up my own phone — it was a most immoderate act of hospitality.

The stories of the immoderate hospitality of the men and women who fled to the desert echo the Gospel call to see the stranger as Christ. Lord, when did we give You to drink? Whenever you do this for the least ones, you do it for me. Visitors to these desert solitaries were met with warmth and care for their physical as well as spiritual needs. As a 4th century visitor to a desert father writes, “when he saw us, he was filled with joy, and embraced us and offered a prayer for us. Then, after washing our feet with his own hands…he invited us to a meal.”

The hospitality practiced by the desert fathers and mothers went further than meeting the needs of their visitors as if they were Christ in a different guise, but were obedient to them as if they were Christ himself. The fathers and mothers of the desert tell the story of a monk who was fasting, but when visitors invited him to eat, he did so without comment or complaint. Later, his fellow monks wondered whether he was upset at his failure to keep his fast. “I’m only distressed when I do my own will,” he responded.

The mothers and fathers of the desert practiced a radical generosity, one that depended not on material wealth, but on their poverty of spirit. They were able to set aside not only their physical needs, but their spiritual needs. Priest and theologian Johannes Metz reminds us this self-abandonment is not to be practiced in isolation, fasting for the sake of fasting, but must respond to our encounters with our brothers and sisters.

Is it harder to fast than it is to let others — to let God — offer themselves to us? Can we not only see, but hear and answer, God in our brothers and sisters? As Lent moves toward Holy Week, I am listening for God’s voice in my classroom and on the streets. Speak, Lord, I am listening.

To read from Scripture: Lord, when did we feed you? Christ reminds us that He can be found in the people around us. Matthew 25:42-45

To pray:

In the silence of the stars,
In the quiet of the hills,
In the heaving of the sea,
Speak, Lord.

In the stillness of this room,
In the calming of my mind,
In the longing of my heart,
Speak, Lord.

In the voice of a friend,
In the chatter of a child,
In the words of a stranger,
Speak, Lord.

In the opening of a book,
In the looking of a film,
In the listening to music,
Speak, Lord.

For your servant listens.

Speak, Lord by David Adam

To listen: Where do we hear God speaking to us? Margaret Rizza’s beautifully still setting of David Adam’s poem reminds me that listening to God is not done in isolation, even by those who live in the wilderness of the desert, but within the relationships we have with our sisters and brothers.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

What does grace sound like?

Birds on the Wires from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.

A few weeks ago a friend posted this video on his Facebook feed. Where I see birds on a wire, someone else sees music.  What do I miss when I'm not expecting grace to intrude, but merely looking for the ordinary?  What would the world sound like if we could hear grace?